Posted 16th Apr 2013
Revolutionise your growing for National Gardening Week with unique plants, gardening advice and tasty recipes from the great James Wong
Electric daisies Acmella oleracea
Edible daisies that taste like a jolt of electricity
Pop one of these unassuming little yellow flowers in your mouth and you will soon find out how it got its range of colourful common names. An initial burst of citrus tang is quickly followed by a curious, tingly sensation - like a jolt of electricity - that fills your whole mouth, ending in a mild local anaesthesia that can last for up to 15 minutes. Also known as buzz buttons, toothache plant.
Native to the tropical forests of South America and West Africa, the plant is incredibly easy to grow as a summer bedding plant in the UK where it is already a popular ornamental plant.
Here's how to get growing:
• Sow the plants from seed on a bright windowsill in March or April and plant them out in a warm sunny location in rich, well drained soil after all risk of frost has passed (usually late May).
• Perfect for pots and tubs, the plant will grow quickly, producing 30-40cm of rich bronze, green foliage and yellow button-like flowers right through the summer. Regularly keep the growing tips pinched back to promote bushy growth and treat them to a high-potash feed fortnightly to encourage flowering.
• Avoid slug and snail (the only real pests they will suffer from) damage by mulching the surface of the pots with sharp gravel. Although unlikely to survive a UK winter outdoors, the plant is extremely easy to start each year from seed. Alternatively, lift it in the late autumn, pot it up and treat it as a houseplant, or take several cuttings in pots of compost on a warm windowsill and plant these back out the following spring.
Harvesting & eating
Simply snip the button-like flowers off when they reach their full colour and remember as with almost all flower crops, the more you pick the more they will produce.
The fizzy ‘space dust'-like effect of electric daisies - which some have likened to licking a nine-volt battery - is produced by the plant's high levels of a pain-relieving agent called spilanthol. This unique factor explains its tradition use in treating toothache and sore throats for centuries, as well as the current fascination it attracts from experimental chefs.
For a truly quirky twist to a simple watercress and grapefruit salad, slice up a flower or two with a little red onion and sprinkle over for an effervescent tang. In Brazil both the leaves and flowers are mixed with sliced chilli and garlic as a condiment for all sorts of dishes, from grilled fish to fried chicken to give dishes an effervescent tang. Be careful though as a little does go a long way.
Try electric daisies in place of Tabasco sauce with oysters, or instead of wasabi on sushi. Or better yet, grind up a few flowers, mix with salt and coat the rim of a margarita glass. Their fresh, sparkly flavour makes them perfect in a palate cleansing sorbet, paired with fresh mangoes and ripe red chillies.
Electric daisies' medicinal effect
Electric daises can be used to make an Electric daisies' medicinal effect
Electric daises can be used to make a pain-relieving mouthwash. Just blitz a few flowers in a blender with a shot or two of vodka, strain and add the mix to an equal quantity of water and bottle up. They also contain a muscle-relaxing chemical called spilanthol, an extract of the plant has managed to find its way into high-end facial creams that claim to have a natural ‘botox' effect. Ladies, form an orderly queue...
A recipe idea
Mango & electric daisy sorbet
Whether it's a tongue tingling dessert or the ultimate between course palate cleanser, this curious ‘fizzy' sorbet is guaranteed to bring a smile to your mate's faces.
3 fresh mangoes, peeled, seeded and sliced
finely grated zest and juice of 2 limes
250g icing sugar, sifted
1 small red chilli, finely chopped, plus a little extra for garnishing
9 small electric daisies, finely chopped, plus a little extra for garnishing
flaky sea salt
Blitz the mangoes, lime zest, lime juice and icing sugar in a food processor to produce a smooth purée. Pour into a tupperware container and pop in the freezer for 1 hour.
Give the mixture a quick stir once every hour until fully frozen (this will take about 4 hours). During your final stir, sprinkle in the chilli and electric daisies and mix well.
Wipe the rim of a martini glass with a slice of lime to coat it in a thin layer of lime juice, flip it over and dip the rim into a mixture of sea salt and chopped electric daisies.
Serve the sorbet in the salt-rimmed glass and garnish with electric daisies and freshly sliced chillies.
Cucamelons Melothria scabra
Tiny grape-sized watermelons that taste of of pure cucumber
These tiny watermelon look-a-likes from Central America are small enough to fit into a teaspoon, but bite into one and the flavour is cucumber with a fresh tinge of lime. Cucamelon's rampant trailing vines produce a constant stream of fruit throughout the summer. Despite their exotic origins and adorable appearance, they are much easier to grow than regular cucumbers and perfectly happy to grow outdoors in the UK, given a sheltered sunny site. Also known as: Mexican sour gherkin, mouse melon
Growing cucamelon is pretty much the same as your standard outdoor cucumber, only far easier. Simply:
• Sow the seeds indoors from April to May in pots of gritty compost. Using a propagator on a sunny windowsill at this stage will give them an ideal head start.
• Plant them out in a sunny, sheltered position after all risk of frost has past, in grow bags, tubs or directly into the ground, spacing them about 30cm apart.
• Cucamelons are a little more cold tolerant than outdoor cucumbers, which can be a lifesaver in areas prone to late cold snaps, however coddle them in a greenhouse and they will be even more productive.
• Provide a tall support for these vigorous scrambling vines to clamber up - a cage of chicken wire would be perfect.
• Water regularly and feed with a high-potash fertiliser like comfrey liquid to encourage maximum fruiting.
• Once the main growing shoot reaches 2.5m, pinch this out to restrict the plant's size. Also trim the lateral side shoots (branches that grow out from the central stem) once they get to 40cm long to keep these rampant growers in check. The plants will fruit from late July right up until the first hard frosts. Unlike cucumbers, cucamelons can also be treated as a perennial, providing you with handfuls of tiny fruit year-after-year from a single sowing. As the vines mature they begin to produce a swollen radish-like root, which can be lifted in late autumn and stored in barely moist compost in a cool garage or shed over the winter. In early April start these back into growth in a pot of moist compost on a sunny window. Planted out after the last frost these second year plants will start to fruit much earlier, making a far longer season of harvests and larger yields. In very mild regions the roots can even be left in the ground - with a thick layer of straw mulch to provide insulation against the worst of the cold they can shrug off chills down to -5°C. To increase your chances of success, incorporate plenty of sand or grit into the compost to ensure the roots do not succumb to rot over the damp, cold winter months.
Harvesting & eating
Cucamelons are ready to harvest when they have swollen to the size of olives or small grapes, but are still firm to the touch. Leaving them any longer can result in a slightly bitter flavour and soggy texture (just like regular cucumbers). Just snip the cucamelons off the vine and store them in the fridge, where they will keep for up to ten days. Cucamelons can be eaten in exactly the same way as traditional cucumbers - sliced into salads, chopped into salsas or pickled whole like cornichons. Mix whole cucamelons (fresh, blanched or pickled) into a bowl of olives and serve with drinks, or spear them with toothpicks and pop them in a martini.
A recipe idea
Pickled cucamelons with dill & mint
A brilliant way to make these crisp summer fruits last well into the depths of winter, home pickling is far easier than you would ever think.
375ml white vinegar (such as distilled malt or white wine)
1 tsp salt
4 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp dill, chopped
1 tbsp mint, chopped
1 tsp coriander seeds (or Tasmanian peppercorns)
1 fresh grape leaf or oak leaf
Pour the vinegar into a bowl and add the salt and sugar. Whisk until the salt and sugar have completely dissolved. Stir in the dill, mint and peppercorns.
Wash the cucamelons in water and pour them into a sterilised jar (sterilise jars by simply running the open jar through the dishwasher on the hottest cycle).
Scrunch up the grape (or oak) leaf and pop this on top of the cucamelons. The tannins in this will slowly disperse out and help keep the fruit crisp.
Pour the seasoned vinegar into the jar and seal tightly. Refrigerate for 2 weeks at which point they will be ready to eat.
Extracts taken from Homegrown Revolution, £20, by James Wong. The book is available to buy from Suttons stands in various garden centres and all other good book stores, from www.suttons.co.uk or by calling 0844 922 0606.